Michelle DeYoung in an intimate voice-and-piano recital at CMF

World premiere of songs by Timothy Collins a highlight of the program

By Peter Alexander July 29 at 12:20 a.m.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the 2018 SeiSolo artist-in-residence at the Colorado Music Festival, lent her impressive voice to an intimate song recital, last night (July 28) in the Chautauqua Auditorium. Performing with her was pianist Cody Garrison.

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Michelle DeYoung

The highlight of the recital was the world premiere of a cycle of songs written for DeYoung by Australian composer Timothy Collins. Earlier in the residency, DeYoung had given the world premiere of an orchestral song cycle by Collins, Buch des Sängers (The singer’s book), also composed for DeYoung.

Collins, himself a singer, clearly knows DeYoung’s voice. The four songs of the new cycle, Love’s Crusade, fit her strengths very well. Just as clearly, DeYoung also knows that; these were the most relaxed, the most natural performances of the evening.

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Timothy Collins

The texts of the four songs are taken from four very different sources: one a translation of a poem by German poet Friedrich Rückert; one a setting from Shakespeare; and two texts newly written by Collins. Of the four, the Rückert song (“If you love me”) was by far the sweetest, the most gently affecting. DeYoung sang with great conviction and unforced expression.

The final song, with Collins’ text, was inspired by DeYoung’s Wagnerian credentials. The composer introduced it by observing that she is “the ideal Brunnhilde.” Titled “Warrior Queen,” it is a Viking-like call to arms by a queen who defends her husband’s realm. I found the text rather conventional for this genre (“Lift your hearts, we ride together! . . . . For country! For the King!”). Dramatic as it is, this is the least interesting music of the cycle, static and declamatory. But unquestionably, DeYoung has the voice and the demeanor for this song, and the final cries “For the King!” rang clear and full throughout the large Chautauqua Auditorium.

The two central songs of the set—“Fear No More” on Shakespeare, and Collins’ “Kentucky Coffee Tree”—set the texts sensitively, and elicited expressive performances from DeYoung. The cycle as a whole is nicely varied, and received a warm response from the audience.

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Michelle DeYoung

Earlier on the program, DeYoung had presented sets of songs by Brahms, Strauss and Samuel Barber. The “ideal Brunnhilde” is not a natural lieder (art song) singer, and at times she was audibly restraining the power in her voice, as though her dramatic force might overflow at any moment. She was at her best in the more dramatic songs, where she could open up more.

The majority of the songs she selected were moderate to slow in tempo and melancholic in temperament. The darkness and natural richness of her voice fits these moods well, giving weight to the music. Nevertheless, the emotional sameness made the exceptions all the more enjoyable: Brahms’ “Mein Liebe ist grün” (My love is green) and Barber’s “Green Lowland of Pianos,” on a witty text by the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz.

After the premiere of the Collins cycle, DeYoung returned to sing as an encore an arrangement of another song written for her by Collins, one of the songs from Buch des Sängers. Completely at ease with music written to suit her individual voice, she sang comfortably and with expression. She was rewarded with cheers from the audience and the obligatory standing ovation.

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Pianist Cody Garrison

A multi-talented artist, Cody Garrison is staff accompanist at Metropolitan State University in Denver and the Boulder Symphony, and the principal collaborative pianist for the Boulder Music Institute, in addition to maintaining a dental practice in Denver. His performance with DeYoung was ever discreet and restrained. While attentive to the leading lines in his part, he never brought out more than necessary or pushed the soloist in any way.

DeYoung will perform one more time at CMF this summer, when she sings the “Abschied” movement from Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (Song of the earth) with conductor Peter Oundjian and the CMF orchestra tonight. Her recording of this deeply moving, elegiac piece is one of the best I have ever heard. Tickets are still available at the Chautauqua box office.

Zeitouni returns, bringing Romantic music, verve and excitement

Michelle DeYoung combines mezzo heft with soaring soprano

By Peter Alexander July 20 at 1 a.m.

Last night (July 19) Jean-Marie Zeitouni returned to the Colorado Music Festival, conducting a concert that had the same verve and excitement that marked so many of his performances when he was the music director.

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Michelle DeYoung

Joining Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra on the first half of the concert was mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, this year’s SeiSolo artist-in-residence at CMF, who contributed a powerful soprano—going well above the usual mezzo range—to a performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Noted for a wide vocal range that opens the door to dramatic soprano roles as well as the deeper mezzo roles, DeYoung has earned a reputation as an outstanding Wagnerian singer. Onstage she has sung roles including Venus in Tannhäuser, Kundry in Parsifal and Brangäne in Tristan, among many others, and she often sings the heroic soprano excerpts including the Liebestod and Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Gotterdämmerung in concert.

Her performance of the Liebestod had a Wagnerian heft as well as shimmering high notes—in effect, a mezzo sound in the lower range and a bright soprano sound up high. She could always be heard, even the middle of a massive orchestral texture. It was a performance few could match.

Zeitouni drew carefully controlled phrases and carefully shaped surges from the orchestra in the Prelude. Apart from imperfectly blended wind sounds once or twice, this was a consistently first-rate performance.

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Jean-Marie Zeitouni

After Wagner, Zeitouni turned and addressed “my beloved CMF audience,” adding a touching personal note to the evening. He introduced composer Timothy Collins, whose song cycle Buch des Sängers (The singer’s book), written for DeYoung, received its world premiere next on the concert.

The vocal lines of Buch des Sängers fall squarely in DeYoung’s mezzo range, with only a few excursions into a higher, brighter range. The first song, “Loveliness,” is indeed as lovely as anything you will hear, with beautiful vocal lines cushioned in a warm blanket of orchestral sound.

That description could apply to most of the rest of the cycle, however. The orchestral sounds are consistently warm and flowing, almost always at a moderate tempo, with added sparkle from percussion and harp to provide highlights. It is all very pleasant, very welcoming to the audience, but greater variety of sound and tempo would command closer attention.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in Buch des Sängers, and DeYoung sang with a radiant conviction. This is music that audiences can embrace without difficulty. It is not hard to predict that other singers will want to take up this cycle, and that it will have many future performances.

The second half of the concert was devoted to an explosive and spectacular performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most brilliant orchestral showpiece, Scheherazade. This is a piece that can display the best of any orchestra, and the CMF orchestra did not disappoint.

Never afraid of dramatic gestures, Zeitouni started the performance with a powerful call to attention, reminding us that the story the music is going to tell comes from the Arabian Nights. “Now we begin!” the lower voices declaim. This was immediately followed by one of many violin solos representing Scheherazade herself, played with a beautifully sweet sound and expressive rhythmic freedom by concertmaster Calin Lupanu.

In fact, the score is filled with individual instrumental solos, and one of the pleasures of the performance was hearing so many individual members of the orchestra have the opportunity to shine. In addition to Lupanu, there were solos for cello, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp—did I miss anyone?—all played with relish and artistry. Every one was a joy to hear.

The final movement was taken at a breakneck pace, about as fast as some parts can be played. It was almost all clean and clear, in spite of the speed, bringing the concert to a rousing close. Played with gusto, such Romantic warhorses can be great fun, and this one certainly was.

Scheherazade will be repeated tonight (July 20) at 6:30 as part of a “Fresh Fridays’ program. Zeitouni will also conduct the CMF Chamber Orchestra on Saturday in a program of Ravel and Beethoven. Purchase tickets here.

 

 

Jean-Marie Zeitouni and Michelle DeYoung return to CMF

Performances include world premieres, iconic masterpieces

By Peter Alexander July 19 at 10:42 a.m.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni is back in town and he feels like a new man.

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Jean-Marie Zeitouni

Currently principal guest conductor of the Colorado Music Festival, Zeitouni was the CMF’s music director through the end of last summer. He is here for the current week, conducting concerts tonight and Sunday (July 19 and 22). Over the past year he has had surgery to reconstruct some joints, and says “I have much more energy and much less pain.”

Although he took time off for the surgeries, Zeitouni had a very good year professionally. “I did a lot of European conducting,” he says. “I managed to spend four months in Europe doing three opera productions, all French operas. I did squeeze in a tour in Brazil with my chamber orchestra, and guest conducting engagements throughout North America.”

Also coming back to CMF is mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who grew up in Colorado and sang at CMF last year. This year she is the SeiSolo Artist-in-Residence at the festival, which includes teaching a masterclass and three performances over eleven days.

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Michelle DeYoung

In that short span, she will perform two of the iconic masterpieces of the soprano and mezzo-soprano repertoires—her range is so great that she sings both—the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the Abschied movement from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. As if that weren’t enough, she will also present two world premieres of music written for her by Australian composer Timothy Collins.

That all gets underway at 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Chautauqua Auditorium, when Zeitouni, DeYoung and the CMF Festival Orchestra will collaborate on a program that features the Wagner, the premiere of Collins’s Buch des Sängers (The singer’s book), and one of the great orchestral showpieces, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.

The program is built around the premiere. Collins and DeYoung have sung together, and he had written songs for her in the past. She asked him to write the orchestral pieces for her, asking that he find texts that had not been set before. His search led him to Goethe’s last poetry, contained in a large set of volumes known as the West-östlicher Divan (roughly translated as the West-Eastern Poetry Collection), which was inspired by translations of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez. Goethe’s monumental collection actually comprises 12 books of poems, the first of which is titled Buch des Sängers. Collins set five of the poems from that volume.

All participants agree that the premiere is a special occasion. “I feel very lucky to partake in the creation of something that is so intimately connected with the performer,” Zeitouni says. “Usually, we try to fit the (performer to the) written music, but now the written music fits the performer. It’s like a glove around her voice. It fits her perfectly.

“It’s rare that we participate in this process, and I’m really honored.”

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Composer Timothy Collins

Collins feels both honored and challenged. “It’s a big responsibility, as well as a huge honor,” he says. “How many composers are asked to write for a Grammy Award-winning mezzo soprano? I just have to think a very great deal about trying to get it right for her voice to showcase what’s so unique about it.

“It’s not just any mezzo-soprano voice, because she has extra high notes, she has particular colors in certain parts of her voice. I just have to think a very great deal about trying to get it right for her voice to showcase what’s so unique about it.”

DeYoung returns the compliments. “He knows what the strengths and weaknesses of my voice are, so when he writes for me it really suits my voice—he highlights what I think is good about my voice. (The songs) are so beautiful that it’s an honor to sing them and to create them.”

Zeitouni wanted to build a program around the premier that would fit the occasion. Because she is known for singing Wagnerian roles, he thought there should be some Wagner in the program, and she had sung the Liebestod before. Then he added Scheherazade because it compliments the Goethe texts as another example of Eastern literature, the 1001 Nights, filtered through Western ears.

For Sunday’s concert with the Chamber Orchestra, Zeitouni says he wanted “to do a concert that is all orchestra, because I want the orchestra to be the gem. Basically we chose Mother Goose, the ballet, not the suite so it’s little longer, it’s a bit more developed, and (Beethoven’s) Eroica (Symphony).

The Beethoven of course is well known to the orchestral players and classical audiences alike, but Zeitouni says it is easy to make it new. “Each time I get a new score, I get fresh ideas, I imagine the people coming and hearing this the first time. How can we get tired of playing this?

“I’m not very old, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve done it almost every year. I’m still looking forward (to it) in the calendar. And I’m looking forward so much to do it here.”

De Young’s masterclass will be open to the public, at 2 p.m. Saturday (July 21) in the Center for Musical Arts in Lafayette. She travels too much to have her own roster of students, but she often gives masterclasses. “I’m from Colorado, so it’s exciting to me,” she says of her role as SeiSolo Artist in Residence at the festival. “It’s a huge honor. If I can do anything to help or be involved, I want to do that.”

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Michelle DeYoung

The other premiere she will present will be part of her song recital the following Saturday (July 28) with pianist Cody Garrison from Denver. In addition to art songs by Brahms, Strauss and Barber, she will sing Collins’s Love’s Crusade, another piece that was written for her.

Love’s Crusade is a cycle of four songs, all taken from very different sources from Shakespeare to Collins’s own texts. “When I put these four songs together, it seemed that there was a common underlying theme of love, the struggle to protect love, and eternal love, so that’s where the title Love’s Crusade came from.

One song in particular Collins included because it fits DeYoung’s image as a Wagnerian soprano. Titled “Warrior Queen,” it tells of a Viking queen who leads the army to protect her husband’s realm. “I loved to present that role (of the) heroic woman who will lead the troops and that she’s the hero.

“I’m very excited to hear this for the first time in the flesh. They’re all very different.”

“That’s one thing that’s very interesting about his compositions,” DeYoung says. “In that cycle especially all four are so different. I always call him a melodist, because he writes such incredible melodies, and writes for (each individual) poem.”

DeYoung will finish her CMF residence fittingly, with the final movement of Mahler’s great song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. Titled Abschied (Farewell), this is one of the great pieces written for mezzo-soprano. That performance will be on a program with conductor Peter Oundjian and the CMF chamber orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 29.

# # # # #

Colorado Music Festival
Events with Jean-Mari Zeitouni, conductor, and
Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano, SeiSolo Artist in Residence
July 19–29
All concerts in the Chautauqua Auditorium

Scheherazade
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 19
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor, with Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano

Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde
Timothy Collins: Buch des Sängers (world premiere)
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Fresh Fridays: Scheherazade
6:30 p.m. Friday, July 20
Conductor: Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor

Borodin: In the Steppes of Central Asia
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
(Played without intermission)

Vocal Masterclass
2 p.m. Saturday ,July 21
Center for Musical Arts, 200 East Baseline Road, Lafayette
Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung
Free and open to the public

Beethoven’s “Eroica”
7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 22
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor

Ravel: Mother Goose (full ballet)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”)

A Poetic Evening
7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 28
Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano, and Cody Garrison, piano

Timothy Collins: Love’s Crusade (World Premiere)
Music by Brahms, Strauss and Barber

Made in America
7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 29
Peter Oundjian, conductor, with Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano

Joan Tower: Made in America
Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite
Maher: Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde

Tickets
Full CMF calendar

 

Beethoven’s monumental 9th Symphony enjoys a mid-season triumph at CMF

Zeitouni, orchestra, chorus and soloists deliver an immaculate performance

By Peter Alexander

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a piece burdened with so much projected significance that it is difficult to hear it just as a piece of music.

Unquestionably a great symphony, it has also become the preferred piece for any major occasion. It has been played for memorials of all kinds, for the reopening of Germany’s Bayreuth Festival after World War II, as the European anthem, for the demolition of the Berlin Wall, to mark the millennium, for Olympic ceremonies and presidential inaugurations, for orchestras opening or closing anniversary seasons, and just this year for the meeting of the G-20 in Hamburg, Germany.

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Jean-Marie Zeitouni

In that context, it was surprising and a bit refreshing that Jean-Marie Zeitouni programmed the Ninth not as the opening or closing gesture of the Colorado Music Festival’s 40th anniversary season, but right the middle of the summer, as if it were just another piece on the program. I believe that is a good thing: it is a better piece when taken off its pedestal and heard as a great artistic product instead of a weighty political or social statement.

I suspect that was Zeitouni’s intention. “I thought, let’s put it right in the middle,” he says. “It’s a way to connect with the people and to offer something familiar.”

However familiar it is, Zeitouni tries to approach the symphony anew each time he conducts it. “Each time I buy a brand new score, I get rid of all the markings that I have and I start fresh,” he says. “And each time I find something new, something I haven’t seen before.”

Whatever Zeitouni has found new, last night’s performance at Chautauqua Auditorium (July 13) more than justified his thinking. He and the CMF Festival Orchestra, joined by the St. Martin’s Festival Singers and an outstanding quartet of soloists delivered an immaculate performance of the Ninth Symphony, from the portentous opening haze of the first movement to the triumphant “Ode to Joy” Finale.

Among the strengths of the performance were the clarity and transparency of the orchestra throughout, a result of well controlled intonation and balance. Zeitouni’s management of the volume and pacing of the performance were remarkable. One of the most powerful moments was the return of the first movement’s primary theme. First heard as a whisper, it comes back with crashing D-minor chords that were, as they should be, the powerful culmination of all that came before. Without careful pacing and management of dynamics, that moment misfires.

The precipitous scherzo movement was marked by great economy of gesture from the conductor and absolute precision across all the tempo changes by the orchestra. The slow movement was deliciously warm, with Beethoven’s extended phrases, passages, whole paragraphs of music beautifully sustained.

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Soprano Mary Wilson

The finale, some of the most familiar music in the repertoire, was marked by many wonderful expressive touches, making the music as fresh to the listener as it must be for Zeitouni with a clean new score. The chorus, prepared by Timothy J. Krueger—who got deserved recognition at the end of the performance—was exceptional, with sopranos that really can sustain those high As that Beethoven cruelly asks for, and in tune.

The four solo parts are some of the most thankless roles in the repertoire, written with no mercy, but they were made as beautiful as possible by the quartet of soprano Mary Wilson, mezzo Michelle DeYoung, tenor Jason Baldwin, and bass Timothy Collins—a last-minute replacement for CU alumnus Keith Miller. Only Collins had a moment of unease, perhaps as the new guy in the quartet, but beyond that they all sang with great assurance, even with some very brisk and exhilarating tempos.

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Composer Betsy Jolas

The Symphony benefited from being played after a short opening portion of the concert, comprising two contrasting pieces: the American premiere of A Little Summer Suite by Betsy Jolas, and Mahler’s early Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (Song of a wayfarer) with De Young as soloist.

Jolas’ Suite, with seven short movements in 12 minutes, reflects the atonal, atomistic style of the mid-20th century—not surprising for a composer born in 1926 and soon to turn 91. It is an assured score, but the summer she seems to be writing about struck me as a little bit sinister, with ominous clouds always on the horizon. The shifting moods were convincingly conveyed by the Festival Orchestra.

Great Performances at the Met: Tannhäuser

Michelle DeYoung as Venus in Wagner’s Tannhauser at the Met. Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

DeYoung, a dramatic soprano with upcoming Wagnerian roles as Kundry in Parsifal, Fricka in Rheingold and Sieglinde and Die Walküre, sang Mahler’s songs with great dramatic import. If slightly overdone for early Mahler, it was nonetheless very effective, especially in the final two movements. Her expressiveness charmed the audience, while Zeitouni and the orchestra provided comfortable support.

The concert was sheer pleasure from beginning to end. I especially commend Zeitouni for allowing us to hear the Ninth as a great piece of music, fresh and powerful, but unburdened of any unnecessary weight.

The Ninth Symphony will be repeated at 6:30 p.m. tonight (July 14) on the CMF “Fresh Friday” series. Tickets from the Chautauqua Box Office.